2004: Perspective - One leg, plenty of grit

Irving, Texas

Sometimes golf isn’t about score. Sometimes it’s about inspiration. We’re reminded of that every time Stephen Fangio hops up and hits a shot.

It’s not everyday a one-legged man tries to qualify for a PGA Tour event. But there was Fangio, 46, who lost his left leg in a 1980 motorcycle accident, attempting to Monday qualify for the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.

He no-carded after poor putting led to an estimated score in the high 80s at Timarron Country Club in Southlake, Texas. But his story is more about heart than numbers. His will leaves an impression wherever he goes.

“He’s amazing, truly amazing,” said Kathy Wilkes, executive director of the Southwest PGA Section.

Since becoming an unaffiliated professional in 1999, the Chandler, Ariz., resident has attempted to Monday qualify on the PGA Tour ($400 entry fee) and Nationwide Tour ($250 fee) at least a dozen times. On the big tour, he has tried the last two years to get into the Phoenix and Tucson tournaments, and this was his third stab at the Nelson.

His best score in qualifiers was an 80 last year before the Nationwide’s Gila River Golf Classic, and he did that while walking on crutches. It wasn’t until this year, he says, that the Tour let him use a cart.

“When I’d walk five miles on crutches, I’d play well for nine and then my hands would get numb and my shoulders tired,” said Fangio. “If not for a cart, I’d be close to a situation where I’d do more damage to my body.”

The father of three quit his job as a mechanical engineering technician in January 2003 to focus on golf with the intent of someday playing the Champions Tour. “It’s feasible,” he says. “I’m getting better all the time.”

At the moment, he averages about 270 yards off the tee and has driven as far as 340. He has shot 67 from the 6,800-yard tees at Southern Dunes Golf Club near Phoenix, his difficult home course.

He says his handicap there from 7,000 yards is “one, worst case.” Southern Dunes assistant pro J.C. Wright estimates Fangio’s average score in the mid-70s. And it would be lower if he didn’t struggle balancing himself on the slopes of bunkers.

“Everybody admires his courage and drive to get out there,” Wright said. “He plays here with a couple of assistants who have two legs and he’s beaten them. He’s that good of a player.”

By all accounts a nice man, Fangio endears himself to people wherever he goes, particularly at the many charity golf events and clinics he attends.

That was no different at the Nelson qualifier, where he impressed his two playing

partners: Tight Lies Tour professional Connie Pierce, 37, of Oklahoma City, winner of numerous mini-tour events; and Bryce Benson, 17, an Arlington (Texas) High School junior.

Pierce shot 67, Benson 76. The thing they had in common was their wide-eyed admiration of Fangio’s balancing act.

“It was incredible,” Benson said. “Every drive he hit was in the middle of the fairway. I was just amazed.”

Gushed Pierce, “The guy has all the courage in the world. He has talent, too. He can play. He probably breaks par on a fairly consistent basis.

I don’t know how he does it, but he does it. I’ve been telling a lot of people about Stephen because he makes an impression on you. How often do you play with a guy with one leg and who can play? It’s tough enough trying to do it with two legs.”

Fangio’s routine is to drive to the ball, use his crutches to check the yardage, take a club from his caddie, discard the crutches, hop behind the ball to line up the shot and then hop into the address position. He says the only time he falls is occasionally in bunkers.

Fangio has taken lessons from former LPGA player Pam Barnett, who teaches the “Swing the Clubhead” principles of the late Ernest Jones, who could shoot par after losing a leg in war. Almost daily Fangio plays at least 18 holes and spends about three hours on the range. He says his ankle hurts when he plays “36 or 54 holes.”

You think? He used to work on his balance on a trampoline until he twisted an ankle and heard this from his doctor: “Steve, you only have one (ankle) left.”

Fangio was a semi-pro soccer player, not a golfer, when he was hit head-on by an Opal GT on a highway in Plano, Texas. He says he had just passed a car on his motorcycle and didn’t see the Opal in a dip as he crossed back into his lane. He says both parties were at fault and he received no settlement.

A religious man, he did gain perspective during three months at a rehabilitation center when “every person there was worse off than I was. I considered myself fortunate and decided it wasn’t going to slow me down. I was going to keep my chin up and keep going.”

He began playing golf regularly after watching Jack Nicklaus win the 1986 Masters. He says he shot in the 80s the first time on one leg and got hooked. In his first tournament, the 1997 DuPont World Amateur, he finished eighth in his 12-handicap flight.

“What ticked me off was that a guy who had his right leg missing beat me by two and finished sixth,” Fangio said. “I kidded him, ‘The only reason you were able to do that was because you finish on the correct side (left).”

Nowadays, sponsor Cleveland Golf provides him clubs and apparel, but his expenses are paid from his savings. He turned pro not long after playing in the 1999 Colonial pro-am with Dave Stockton. He calls that day at Colonial his golf highlight, considering all the gallery love he received, particularly after hitting the “best 3-wood of my life” off the 10th tee.

After that round, he signed an autograph for a man and got goose bumps in return.

“I think one of these days you’re going to make it as a professional,” the man told Fangio. “I’m going to put this autograph next to the one I have of Jack Nicklaus.”

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